Terma (or τέρμα)

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Note dear reader: I will not come close to capturing the real essence of the subject of this post but I promise to do my absolute best. Simply, he is too large to get right on paper.

He was a force, that much is certain. He was with us often, always it seemed, on that trip to Greece several years ago. He filled the room with his sheer presence. Not overbearing exactly, like some boulder rolling down a hillside; he was more like a professional entertainer that was always on. Amusing but exhausting.

He was my uncle Taiki, now recently departed.

When we arrived in Athens after a very long day of flying and connecting, he whisked us to the family house in the city, where we settled in for a multi-hour feast. He sat, as I remember, between Erika and me and served as more or less constant, which is to say non-stop, translator.

He told me stories about the family and gave Erika a crash course in must-know Greek. The word for fork. The word for knife. The word for glass. And on. And on. And on, throughout dinner.

He told me how superior the Greek language was to the vulgarity of English. In English, we have one word for rock, he said; in Greek, there’s rock, and pebble, and stone, and boulder. And on. And on.

He called me something that sounded like “Brunt.”

One day, a few days later, he loaded us into the back of his van and took us all to the Temple of Poseidon at Sounio, which turned out to be, as promised, among the most beautiful places I have seen on this earth.

When I pulled out my camera to get some photos, Taiki seemed genuinely offended. “Rocks,” he said. “You came all this way to take pictures of rocks?” I tried to laugh it off but he had none of it. “You like rocks?” he asked. I said I found the temple magnificent, or whatever word I had to express that feeling in Greek.

With that, he vaulted the barrier, walked to a column and broke a piece of marble off in his thick hand. He came back, jumped the chain again, shoved the piece of the ancient and glorious temple into my hand and said, “There. Now you’ve got your rock.”

Taiki looked much like his aunt, my grandmother. The fair hair, the piercing blue eyes, the rolling walk that so many have who’ve grown up in an agricultural life. We visited the family farm, on the Gulf of Corinth. Taiki showed me the family’s olive press, the fields where my grandmother played as a little girl, the boat the family used to catch the calamari we had for lunch that day.

And there were the stories. Some, frankly, just too good to be true, even when washed down with liberal amounts of the family’s homemade retsina. He was a general in the Greek army, politically connected, a lemon farmer, a raconteur, a lover of life and his family.

When, during our visit, he would get to be too much, Erika would tell him to stop by saying a word Taiki himself had taught her, terma. And, like the gentleman he was, he would smile and stop (for a few minutes, at any rate).

According to the Urban Dictionary, a Taiki is “…a male who is an oddball combination of an artist, a gentleman, and a ninja.” How very accurate.

And, as Erika can still tell you, the Greek word for fork is πιρούνι. Thank you for that, Taiki. 

Terma.

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Well, Look At Us

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Every single day in my hometown, and without much incident, close to a million people get out of their beds, bathe, eat something and get themselves to work, or school, or somewhere else they believe to be worth getting to.

Some climb, (granted, with fingers crossed, perhaps), onto our city’s public transit system, called MUNI, or the regional transit system, called BART, or onto AMTRAK, or Caltrain, or into employer-provided buses, or their own cars, or bikes, or even walk; again, mostly without incident, to speak of. Now, MUNI can be insanely crowded, late and filthy. By all rights, there could be riots on the rails every day about some offense or other but there are just not. Mostly, my fellow San Franciscans and I get on, get off and get about our business.

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We go to workplaces and schools and studios and stores to buy food – or maybe eat out with our friends and families on Sunday nights, or special occasions. We’re productive, hardworking people, just like most people in most cities are, trying to do well by ourselves, our families and succeeding generations.

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In my hometown, we residents and our families originally come from places all over the globe – China, Russia, Italy, England, Cameroon, Indonesia, Cambodia, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Japan, Afghanistan, Vietnam and even Greece, like my family did. We’re Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Sikhs, Muslims and Druids. And, miracle of miracles, there’s no faith-based violence to speak of – not even much evidenced expression of faith-based hatred, anger or enmity. And this isn’t because there’s no overt expression of religious belief or practice – there are more places of worship in San Francisco than bars (If you know anything about this city, you know that is a significant statistic.) – as some would have you believe.

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And we’re people of all genders and sexual orientations and identities. And – witness any public gathering – widely diverse aesthetics as well.

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This city – any large and diverse city – only works because we collectively agree to accept, appreciate, and even celebrate the diversity in which we live and pretty much let other people get on with their own lives as they themselves see fit.

(Go in peace, my brother.)

The fact that we try, day in and day out, is both extraordinary and startlingly common to all modern cities of any scale.  The fact that it works and has worked here for over 150 years, without widespread insanity and violence, day in and day out, is nothing short of absolutely miraculous.

There’s a lesson in this, for those who care to hear it.

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How, Indeed.

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“War, children. It’s just a shot away.”

– Gimme Shelter, Jagger/Richards (1969)

The physical evidence of now-dead civilizations, some civilizations we still consider ‘great’ among them, quite literally circles the globe and populates our kids’ study-sheets and textbooks.

Athens. Rome. Great Zimbabwe. Machu Picchu, Sukhothai.

Ruins. Grand palaces repurposed as stores, stables and shithouses. Formerly powerful imperial cities of gold buried under strata of the refuse of succeeding societies and generations.

Think it won’t happen here? Think it can’t? That we’re too great, too special? American exceptionalism? “Don’t make me laugh,” says history to every civilization since the dawn of time.

Only a fool thinks himself the endpoint of evolution.

If there are any lessons to be learned at all from history, this is its primary lesson.

And yet, we Americans behave as if everlasting world dominion is our rightful inheritance. We project our military power around the globe willy-nilly, with the flimsiest of pretexts. When the pretexts are exposed as wrong-headed, ignorant, or just plain false, we don’t withdraw; we persist.

We extract the earth’s resources as if we had the key to a private, bottomless storeroom.

We have all but abandoned the decades-long compact between citizen and state that had as its foundation a high-quality, robust and universally-accessible system of public education. Go to the schools our tax dollars fund, it said, and become the engine of our economy; you’ll be more affluent and we’ll get better citizens. We’ve underfunded these schools, allowed them to bleed to near-death, made them inaccessible to those with no alternatives and unattractive to those with many.

We murder each other with reckless, yet increasingly efficient, abandon and argue against any attempt to control our unfettered access to the instruments of our very own deaths.

Relying on the mass marketing of deliberately ahistorical fantasies about the American characteristics of self-reliance and individualism, we distribute ever more of our economic wealth to ever fewer people; in so doing, we squeeze the life out of the very middle class that created our society’s wealth and stability to begin with, and inflate the economic and political power of a class with seeming indifference to all that live below it.

The result?

Decaying streets, sewers, roads, bridges, schools. Declining economic opportunity. Increasing concentration of power among the proudly-ignorant. A ratcheting up of violence. And internecine warfare over the scraps.

This is the way all empires die.

There will come a time when the people of this country will look around with slack-jawed wonder and ask how it could have come to this.

As if they didn’t know.

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Nostalgia By Waves

I was driving home on a recent rainy Saturday night. The city’s downtown holiday lights were going up. Car and pedestrian traffic was heavy, manic and unaware; just a dress rehearsal, of course, for the nightmare weeks coming after the Thanksgiving observance, but tense and nerve-jangling nonetheless. When I popped on the car’s radio to drown out yelling people and blaring horns, I heard the strains of a Celtic song, Scottish or Irish, I did not know for certain. The sound of the fiddle, so characteristic of Celtic music, so beautiful, yet so full of sadness, washed over me with a wave of familiarity, as if I was actually at the ceilidh where the recording took place.

The ache I was feeling has a name; it’s called nostalgia.

Nostalgia comes, as so many of our words do, from the Greek – a combination of nostos, meaning “homecoming,” and algos, meaning “ache.” So, nostalgia is, literally, an ache of longing for a time or place that has sentimental weight, like home.

When I post photos of long-gone San Francisco (e.g., Playland-at-the-Beach) on this blog or to my facebook account, as I am sometimes wont to do, that’s an expression of my nostalgia for a hometown that doesn’t exist anymore in the way it did when I was a kid. Funny, then, that I would feel the same ache from Celtic music but feel it, I did.

Now, I’ve never been to Ireland, and I’ve been to Scotland only once (loved the visit, by the way) but I would never consider either place home. Nor would I consider myself Celtic. My people are from the eastern Mediterranean. Nor did I grow up listening to Celtic music as a kid. It’s something I enjoy hearing from time to time, and that’s about it. For some reason, from penny whistles to crying fiddles to skirling bagpipes, Celtic music does something to me emotionally. [A side note: for the most part, I’d still rather listen to other stuff. I’m not insane.]

My nostalgic connection to Celtic music is somewhat similar to the feelings I have for Washington, DC and North Carolina in the spring and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia in the fall, but at least I actually lived in those places and still have actual friends and memories I closely and warmly attach to each.

No, as I think more about it, this may all be traced to the particularities and peculiarities of my family history.

It was almost a century ago that all four of my grandparents left (or were forcefully uprooted from) all the people and places they held most dear in the world. They came to a wholly unfamiliar place, amidst mostly unfamiliar people and customs. So, as American as they became over time – and they did, in fact come to be more American than Greek  by the ends of their lives – they still must have been mightily torn by the competition bewteen the pull of their old land and the push of the new.

Is this familial inheritance the reason that, even though I dearly love my hometown, I so often look over my shoulder at other places and fondly remember the people of my long-gone past? Is it the reason music that’s really not my own sometimes feels so close to the bone?

The Freedom of Speech

The majority-Muslim world is still on fire with reaction to a film (well, a crudely produced trailer for a film unlikely to actually ever exist) which purposefully pokes fun at their religion’s prophet. Many countries are in the process of instituting greater levels of regulation about similar types of speech. That is to say, freedom of speech is increasingly being limited along religious grounds.

A newly-democratic Tunisia is, at this very moment, trying to find its balance point. Where are the limits, within its borders, of free speech? Can the prophet of Islam be criticized, caricatured, used as the butt of jokes?

Many in industrialized democracies, both here and in Europe especially, see this as backward thinking, regressive, superstitious, un-modern. This criticism is, I believe, self-righteous and unfair.

Every single society I’ve ever been a part of, known of, or read or heard about for that matter has at least one thing in common: freedom of speech within that society is limited or regulated in some way.

Some examples of the limits of free speech in free societies:

In Denmark, known and often envied for freedoms afforded citizens, it is illegal for: “Any person [to] publicly or with the intention of disseminating … make a statement … threatening, insulting, or degrading a group of persons on account of their race, national or ethnic origin or belief.”

In France, individuals and media are generally free but subject to several significant exceptions, including prohibitions against “…incitement to hatred, discrimination, slander and racial insults,” xenophobia (including a specific prohibition against Holocaust denial), or hatred against people due to gender, sexual orientation or disability.

The Basic Federal Law of Germany affirms freedom of expression with the following exceptions:

  • Insults which do not respect human dignity
  • Malicious gossip, defamation
  • Hate speech against segments of the population and in a manner that is capable of disturbing the public peace (including racist agitation and anti-Semitism)
  • Holocaust denial, the use of symbols of unconstitutional organizations (e.g., the Swastika)
  • Disparagement of the Federal President, the state and its symbols
  • Rewarding and approving crimes, casting false suspicion
  • Insulting of faiths.

In addition, public outdoor assemblies must be registered beforehand. Assemblies at memorial sites are banned. Individuals and groups may be banned from assembling, especially those whose fundamental rights have been revoked and banned political parties.

In Greece, the Constitution makes it an offense for the press to insult the President of Greece as well as Christianity and any other religion recognized by the state.

In the United States, there are numerous oft-used exceptions to freedom of speech, including:

  • Obscenity
  • Defamation
  • Incitement to riot or imminent lawless action, fighting words
  • Fraud, speech covered by government granted monopoly (copyright), and speech integral to criminal conduct
  • Speech related to information decreed to be related to national security such as military and classified information

If there is a society in which speech is completely free and unregulated, I don’t know of it. All societies recognize that there are legitimate competing interests; to maintain a functioning society, there must be boundaries around free speech. Each society must (and does) decide for itself which interests need acknowledgment, which need protection.

Which brings us back to current events and reactions to them.

The desire of Tunisians to protect the image of their prophet is no different than prohibitions in, for example, Greece, in either intent or substance. And people of the Muslim world might therefore, I believe, fairly ask why the world’s industrial democracies can see fit to create judicial protections for the images of their precious presidents but believe Tunisians’ violent reactions to defamation of their prophet beyond the boundaries of modern, civilized behavior.

Greece Decides

A sigh, but not one entirely of relief.

The much-anticipated return to the polls happened in Greece this past weekend, and the global game of economic chicken is over for the moment.

The result of the nation’s second election in a little over a month was a very narrow victory for one of Greece’s traditional political parties, the conservative and pro-bailout/EURO/austerity New Democracy (ND) party. Assuming ND can successfully form a government, this would seem to indicate that Greece will, for now, stay within the boundaries of a heavy-handed, German-dictated austerity agreement and stay within the Eurozone.

Yesterday’s election gives hope to many, including those working in the world’s financial markets, and rips it cleanly and painfully away from others, like ordinary working Greeks, who can now fully expect to pay for their misplaced faith in international establishments, corporate elites and even their own elected leaders.

One important lesson I hope my beloved Greek brothers and sisters have learned through this recent experience: political leaders, whether democratically elected or not, cannot be trusted to fulfill their campaign promises.  I recognize that I am a virtually complete cynic when it comes to this, but my own considerable experience amply supports this conclusion.

The Greek people, that is to say, the real, hard-working, family-oriented, open-hearted Greek people, who were sold blue-sky and puffy-cloud, joy-everlasting, land-of-milk-and-honey fictions about their participation in the Eurozone have been handed the bill for a banquet they were never invited to attend and, for which, their succeeding generations will be left to slave.

So, for now, the world has escaped the feared tipping over of the first Eurozone domino. I’d say it’s scant cause for celebration.

For All the Greek Marbles

On Sunday, June 17, Greeks will vote for the second time in about a month.

The last national election results seemed almost humorously irrational to the outside world; for example, putting both socialists and neo-Nazis into parliamentary seats. It wasn’t, of course, either funny or irrational from the perspective of the Greek people, who felt themselves lied to by their own political and business leaders and by global financial interests, leaving them with a burning anger and the unpaid bill for quite a spending party.

After the May elections, no party could form a government, so the nation will go to the polls again.

But there’s no laughing this time around. Not anywhere.

The stakes are quite serious, indeed. Greeks must decide whether they’ll stay in the Eurozone and, if so, who will bear the burden. Markets are trembling and tough talk from some quarters, especially among Europe’s so-called leaders, has done nothing of benefit to anyone. Financial analysts, governments and politicians everywhere are watching closely what the Greek people will decide about their future – stay or go, accept Eurozone-mandated austerity measures, radically change the nature of Greek social programs. In any case, there will be worldwide ripple effects, in addition to perhaps seismic changes within Greece itself.

Austria’s foreign minister, Maria Fekter, put the question with characteristic starkness and gratuitous paternalism, what some see as a direct threat: “Greece will not receive any more economic aid if the election on 17 June results in a government that refuses to keep to the terms of the memorandum [prior agreement about bailout conditions].”

Will Greeks express a clear direction? Will they start the domino-like disintegration of the Euro? Will they provide an example other European countries will follow?

Sunday’s election in the birthplace of democracy will tell.